Not All Banjo Music Is Created Equal

3banjosMy first banjo post

As my friends are all too aware, I’ve become something of a banjo addict since buying my first banjo not quite 3 years ago.  I play (old-time or clawhammer style), restore and collect banjos, and listen to a whole lot of banjo music of different genres. (Yes, there are distinct genres of banjo music.) So far, I have avoided posting anything about banjos on this blog, but have finally decided that it’s probably time to include the occasional post related to banjos and banjo music.

Surprise! I don’t like all kinds of banjo music

The more I listen to banjo music, the more opinionated I have become about the different banjo styles. While I have always thought I loved bluegrass music, I come to discover that I really don’t care for a lot of it, mainly due to the banjo playing. I recall something I once heard about the key to jazz music being knowing what notes not to play. With much of bluegrass, there is no such concept. To be honest, a lot of bluegrass banjo playing is just noise—too many notes unceremoniously crammed into too small of a space. When played with discretion, the banjo can add rhythm and drive, and even melody and counter-melody. The problem is, discretion seems to be in short supply with many bluegrass players.

Another complaint I have with bluegrass banjo is that many times the focus is on speed and dexterity. While I appreciate the abilities of folks like Béla Fleck or Jonny Mizzone (who’s like 10 years old), to me, I might as well be listening to a machine. There are a lot of fast, perfect notes, but it seems too clinical much of the time.

I do like some bluegrass banjo playing

I do really like some bluegrass players.  My favorite has to be Ron Block, who plays most often with Alison Krauss & Union Station. Block is a great player, and has a very good sense of melody and balance.  I appreciate his playing whether he’s playing on a pop song or a traditional bluegrass number. I liked Earl Scruggs, who invented the style. I’ve also liked a number of other players, like Doug Dillard, John Hartford, and of course John McEuen (of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame).  I’m also a big Steve Martin fan.

The infamous “G lick”

I’ve discovered one of the things that drives me nuts about a lot of bluegrass players, and that is the overuse of the infamous “G lick.”  It is probably the most recognizable lick in bluegrass banjo, as you’ll discover if you Google it. I’ve heard many bluegrass tunes where the G lick is used in nearly every phrase. It’s enough to drive you crazy, once you recognize it.  It’s one of the first things banjo players learn, and it seems like often it’s the only thing they’ve learned.  It belongs in “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” but not in much else.

I was curious, so the other day I listened to 3 or 4 Alison Krause & Union Station albums. I didn’t hear the standard G Lick once. Ron seems to avoid it like the plague. There are times he does something similar, but he always varies it so there’s no obnoxious repetition. Here’s a recent example of what 3-finger playing should sound like (again, my opinion):

Here’s one more favorite recording of mine, which goes back many, many years:


Notice how the banjo approaches the song almost classically, with an awareness of each note being played (as well as each note not being played).  This kind of playing is what first attracted me to the banjo, not that racket that appears on 90% of the bluegrass I hear.

Good banjo, bad banjo

So, there’s good banjo, and then there’s bad banjo.  I like good banjo.

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